The Bollywood superstar Salman Khan has been sentenced to five years in jail for poaching a protected species of Indian antelope, in the latest twist to an off-screen life almost as dramatic as the epics he has starred in.
A court in Rajasthan state on Thursday found Khan, one of the world’s best-paid actors, guilty of illegally hunting the two blackbucks from his car window while filming in Jodhpur in 1998.
Public prosecutors alleged that Khan, 52, and four other actors in the car with him fled the scene when they were spotted, leaving the animals’ carcasses behind.
The other actors, among them Saif Ali Khan and Sonali Bendre, were acquitted by the court in Jodhpur for lack of evidence.
India’s wildlife protection act bans the hunting of all but a few species of wild animals without a special permit.
As well as the five-year sentence the court also fined Khan 10,000 rupees (£109). His lawyers said they would appeal against the decision. and an urgent bail hearing had been scheduled for 10.30am on Friday.
Khan was taken to Jodhpur central jail after visiting a local hospital for a medical examination.
Hundreds of police had surrounded the courtroom in Jodhpur to keep back fans of the actor, known for his bad-boy image and macho film roles.
Khan has long maintained that he was framed by forest officials “for publicity” and that the blackbucks could have died from natural causes such as overeating.
Khan’s lawyer Anand Desai said in a statement he was surprised by the judgment as the facts of the case mirrored those the Rajasthan high court had relied on to suspend his client’s conviction for the same crime in 2007.
He also questioned why the other accused has been let free, which he said implied “that Salman was out hunting alone in the middle of the night in a remote area outside Jodhpur”.
At the time of the poaching, blackbucks were regarded as a vulnerable animal, but have since been reclassified as a species of “least concern”, though they remain protected by Indian wildlife regulations.
Khan has a history of brushes with the law. In 2015, he was acquitted of kiilinga homeless man in a hit-and-run incident in 2002, a decision now being challenged in the supreme court.
His fellow Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai, a former girlfriend, accused Khan of verbal and physical abuse in a 2002 interview – allegations Khan has denied.
Khan was first arrested in the poaching case in October 1998 after reports emerged that he had hunted the two antelope and at least three other gazelles.
Eight years later, he was convicted of killing the blackbucks and sentenced to five years in prison, a decision he appealed to the Rajasthan high court, which suspended the sentence in August 2007 after the actor had spent two short stints in jail.
The charges were revised and laid again the following year, and have hung over Khan for the past decade, preventing him from obtaining a UK visa in 2013 until the Rajasthan government asked the court to give him leeway to travel.
In 2016, he was acquitted of separate poaching charges relating to the gazelles.
The allegations of poaching against the actor were first made by a member of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan, a sect that considers blackbucks to be a reincarnation of their 15th-century guru.
Poonamchand Bishnoi reportedly told the court he had heard gunshots and saw headlights the night of the poaching and wrote down the registration number of the hunter’s car as it sped away.
Members of the sect who were gathered outside the court cheered as the verdict was read and Khan was led into a police vehicle.
Cases in India’s overburdened legal system can take years to be processed but the lingering poaching charges have failed to dampen the often obsessive devotion Khan commands from his fans.
“Khan’s bad-boy image has sustained him from the beginning of his career,” said Anna MM Vetticad, an Indian film industry journalist and author.
“The frequent reports of drunken misbehaviour in public, indiscipline at work and girlfriend abuse, along with the hit-and-run and poaching cases that finally landed him in court, have contributed greatly to fan enthusiasm for him.”
His mostly male followers see something of their own struggles in those of the man they call “Salman-bhai”, or Salman-brother, she added. “To them, [he] is a golden-hearted man-child whose charitable trust is reason enough to forgive him for what they consider mere human failings.”
He earned $37m (£26m) last year, according to Forbes, making him India’s second-highest paid entertainer after Shah Rukh Khan.
His latest film, Tiger Zinda Hai, about a soldier who goes into Iraq to rescue hostages from Islamic State, collected about $85m worldwide.
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